When Gene Smith met Harold Feinstein

Photography is a poetry that photographers write for each other.  They speak a Mimetic vernacular intended for all ears, but picked up only by the few equipped with the most-refined antennae.  So, you can expect that the authors of the strongest stuff will sooner or later find one another, like water seeking its own level.

This is true of the meeting of souls captured wonderfully in Jim Hughes’ biography, W. Eugene Smith: Shadow & Subtance: The Life and Work of an American Photographer.

The book is required reading for those who take photography seriously as a means of creative expression. On the nightstand it should supercede Barthes’ Camera Lucida or that awful collection by Sontag on grounds of practical & psychological utility. For myself, it was a page-turner that I carried around for a week, and its messages and details inhabit my dreams.

Beginning on page 286 …

Harold Feinstein first met Gene in late 1949, when Gene was preparing to go to England.  At the time, Feinstein was a precocious eighteen-year-old with a growing portfolio of photographs of people who inhabited, if only temporarily, a microcosm of life called Coney Island.  The teaming Brooklyn neighborhood of arcades and roller-coasters and sun-baked beachfront was Feinstein’s “home town,” and he had been documenting it with a camera since he’d discovered photography three years earlier.

Gene took an immediate liking to the pudgy, bespectacled youngster with the straight-on style: not only did Harold know how to make good black-and-white prints, but he had already mastered the fine art of ferricyanide bleaching.

“I was going around to various photographers, showing my work,” Feinstein recalls of his early job-hnting efforts. “I had gone to see Arnold Newman, and he understood immediately that I wasn’t good assistant material. But he liked my work and said, ‘You know, you have to meet Gene Smith. He’s crazy but he’s great.’ I had never heard of him.

“Arnold called Gene up, and I went up to see him at a big apartment studio on 74th. Cameras were scattered all over the place, prints were piled up. Anywhere you went there was a treasure. I was terribly impressed.

“Gene told me he was getting ready to go do Spain. I don’t know whether he considered me as someone who could be an assistant, but I was eighteen and planning to get married, and too much in love to think about such a trip.”

During the year following “Spanish Village” [which ran in the LIFE magazine issue 9 April 1951]


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